Mindanao: Healing which Past? Building the Future for Whom?

The documentary film Mindanao: Healing the Past, Building the Future is about the armed conflict in Mindanao between Christian settlers and Muslims and how people struggle to mend their lives and communities torn by centuries of protracted armed conflict. While watching the video, the song of the folk group Asin entitled Ang Bayan kong Sinilangan entered my mind. I think the following lyrics summed-up the general idea expressed in the film.

Sa bayan kong sinilangan sa Timog Cotabato
Ako ay namulat sa napakalaking gulo
Dahil walang respeto sa prinsipyo ng kapwa tao
Kapwa Pilipino ay pinapahirapan mo, ang gulo
Kung ako ay maitutulong, tutulong ng buong puso
Gitara koy aking iaalay
Kung magkagulo ay gamitin mo
Kung kalabay walang puso
Puso narin ang gamitin mo
Ituring mong isang kaibigan
Isipin mong sya ay may puso rin katulad mo

How can we end this war? How can we move forward amidst ruined lives and communities, amidst the death of our family members and atrocities made by one towards the other? The song of Asin and the film promotes the idea of peace based on tolerance of the culture and beliefs of others. To do this, we need to forgive our perceived “enemies” simultaneous with changing our attitude towards them.

In a way I am familiar with the issue of armed conflict in the country. Working with the Children’s Rehabilitation Center exposed me to this often ignored reality. My work with CRC involved the documentation and provision of psycho-social services for cases of children’s rights violation committed in relation to armed conflict in the island of Panay. I also attended various conferences on children’s rights and children’s situation. During those conferences I was able to meet children and parents in other parts of the country, including Mindanao, who were victims of children’s rights violation in the context of armed conflict.

The experiences of these children are telling of the extent of the effect of war. Yes, it is very traumatic especially for children. Armed conflict destroys what little property that these people have. It even places the whole community on the verge of extinction because of cases of indiscriminate firing and indiscriminate bombing, especially by government forces.

But this is not just the story these children and their families told us. Those stories also talk of the perseverance of these people to survive and resist the injustice done to them. These children tell us that sometimes people are left with no choice but to take up arms to defend themselves against the onslaught perpetuated by an oppressive and exploitative ruling order.

In the Ibon Foundation book entitled Uncounted Lives: Women and Children in Armed Conflict, one of the quotations that impressed me is the statement of Amin, one of the child soldiers of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front-Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Force (MILF-BIAF). He is 16 years during the time of the interview. He joined the MILF when he was 13:

The main reason why I am here is because of what happened to my family. It is my right to defend myself. We are bombed in Liguasan without any defenses. It means that if I do not defend myself, I would face the same fate as my father and siblings. That is what happened to me.  This is what I will say to anyone who asks me why I am here. However, the longer I stay with the group the more I realize that revenge will not be enough. I also need to continue with the struggle to defend my religion and fight for the Bangsamoro homeland (2007, p.123).

The truth is, the war in Mindanao was not sparked by just one person or one single accident. It is a product of centuries of oppression of Muslims by the predominantly Christian government based in Manila from the time of Spanish Colonization, worsened by the American Occupation and up to the present government of the Republic of the Philippines dominated by bureaucrats and big hacienda owners in Luzon.

I am not comfortable with labeling the war happening in Mindanao as a war waged by Muslims against Christians.

First, it would seem that the former wanted to eradicate the entire Christian nation. Our Muslim brothers and sisters in the South, for sure, do not want to kill Christians simply because they are Christians. It was in fact the Christians, in the name of the Spanish Crown and Catholicism that slaughtered the Moors not just in the Philippines but those in Spain and the Mediterranean during the 1400s. In short, the Moro resistance is actually a war of defense waged by our Muslim brothers against the pillage orchestrated by the Christian majority.

Second, the armed conflict happening in Mindanao is rooted in economic concerns – on the control of the very rich land of Mindanao. Why are the Americans, for example, really determined to put Mindanao under its control? It is not because they just want to “civilize” the barbaric Muslims in the south. It is because of the very rich resources that the island possesses – from minerals like gold and copper, logs from thousand-old trees, very fertile land for agricultural production and the very rich marine resources. Up to now, a large chunk of US Armed Forces in the Philippines are assigned in Mindanao to protect the interests of Del Monte and DOLE Corporations and other mining firms amidst the escalating armed resistance waged by the people of Mindanao.

For me this kind of appreciation of reality faced by people in Mindanao must be the guiding principle in any kind of organizing in the area. This is not to say that you tolerate armed conflict. Understanding the roots of the conflict means crafting ways that would help solve the root causes of the conflict. Militarization, as pointed in the film, cannot be the solution. It will only further ignite the anger of the people. It was pointed in the film that the socio-economic aspect of peace building in Mindanao is a failure thus non-government organizations (NGOs) resort to simply changing the culture and the attitude of people.

But what kind of socio-economic programs were implemented in the first place? Development for whom? Construction of roads and infrastructures for whom? Is it not that those roads are constructed in order to better the operations of mining firms and plantations that plunder the resources and abuse the rights of Muslim workers and people? It is not for the people, the poor and marginalized people of Mindanao.

If the government and all other institutions including NGOs are really serious about building genuine and enduring peace in Mindanao, they should advocate and craft policies that would redistribute land to the landless peasants, policies that would stop large scale mining and logging in Mindanao. Moreover, they should strive towards national industrialization in order to develop the Philippine economy into a self-reliant one. This is the only genuine way for peace.

Today there is a peace agreement between the MILF and the government just like there was one with the Moro National Liberation Front in the past. But if the basic plight of the Moro people are not addressed then it is only a matter of time for a new armed group to take up the mantle left by the MILF.

Yes, we could always propagandize about the culture of peace. But peace based on what? It must always be peace based on social justice. No matter how we propagandize the culture of peace if the conditions of the people remain the same, war or armed conflict will naturally emerge sooner or later. War is inevitable under a society that breeds the oppression and exploitation of the majority of the people.

These are some of the crucial questions that the film Mindanao: Healing the Past, Building the Future fails to ask. At the end of the day, the question that needs to be answered is – for whom do we organize? For me, there are just two camps that exists – that of the people in power (the big landlords and compradors) and that of the oppressed and the exploited sectors (especially the peasants and the workers).

We could always talk about achievements and success of our organizing. We could always boast about how sophisticated, creative, and politically correct we are in organizing communities. But the real thing that matters is the answer to the question, for whom. For whom are we doing all these? What interests do we carry in all these? Organizing is really successful if its departure is to serve the oppressed.



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